Week 9. Amusement Parks and World Fairs

Week 9. “The Problem of the Twentieth Century is the Problem of the Color Line”: Jack Johnson & Segregated Entertainment

“Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” 

Photographs of Jack Johnson the “New Negro” Heavy Weight Champion & Ida B. Wells 

Additional Footage of Jack Johnson 

Sample Newspaper Articles on the Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries “Fight of the Century”

Coney Island Multimedia to accompany Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century 

Photographs of Coney Island’s Visual Culture

Some of these photographs are provided in Kasson’s book. I am providing enlarged digital copies for you here so you can see their details.

View of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from "Views of Coney Island, Volume 3" by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.
View of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from “Views of Coney Island, Volume 3” by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.
Elizabeth, N.J. : A.S. Campbell, c1896.
Elizabeth, N.J. : A.S. Campbell, c1896.
Five bathing beauties posed on beach. 1897.
Five bathing beauties posed on beach. 1897.
Steeplechase 1907
Steeplechase 1907
Steeplechase Park at night, Coney Island, N. Y. 1930. Boston Public Library.
Steeplechase Park at night, Coney Island, N. Y. 1930. Boston Public Library.
Human roulette wheel, new Steeplechase Park. 1908.
Human roulette wheel, new Steeplechase Park. 1908.
View of people on the Razzle Dazzle amusement ride at Luna Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from "Views of Coney Island, Volume 3" by Eugene Armbruster. 1900. Brooklyn Historical Society.
View of people on the Razzle Dazzle amusement ride at Luna Park in Coney Island. Scrapbook page from “Views of Coney Island, Volume 3” by Eugene Armbruster. 1900. Brooklyn Historical Society.
Razzle Dazzle, Coney Island. 1986.
Razzle Dazzle, Coney Island. 1986.


The Earthquake Floor Steeplechase Park [handwritten on recto]. 1900. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari's Dreamland's Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1910.
Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari’s Dreamland’s Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1910.
Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari's Dreamland's Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1909.
Photo taken at Col. Joseph G. Ferari’s Dreamland’s Trained Wild Animal Arena. 1909.
Luna Park in Coney Island 1910
Luna Park in Coney Island 1910
The Flip Flap, Coney Island. 1906.
The Flip Flap, Coney Island. 1906.


Night Scene at Steeplechase Park [handwritten on recto]Depiction of Steeplechase Park at Night with decorative lights and cololrs. Scrapbook page from "Views of Coney Island, Volume 3" by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.
Night Scene at Steeplechase Park [handwritten on recto]Depiction of Steeplechase Park at Night with decorative lights and cololrs. Scrapbook page from “Views of Coney Island, Volume 3” by Eugene Armbruster. Brooklyn Historical Society.

Multimedia Related to World’s Fair History

If you want to see some of the amazing architecture that integrated lights and electricity in the Chicago “Columbian Exposition,” I recommend this clip.

W.E.B. Du Bois and the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris 


“Double Consciousness” excerpt from WEB Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk

Chapter I

‘Of Our Spiritual Strivings’

O water, voice of my heart, crying in the sand,
  All night long crying with a mournful cry,
As I lie and listen, and cannot understand
    The voice of my heart in my side or the voice of the sea,
  O water, crying for rest, is it I, is it I?
    All night long the water is crying to me.

Unresting water, there shall never be rest
  Till the last moon droop and the last tide fail,
And the fire of the end begin to burn in the west;
    And the heart shall be weary and wonder and cry like the sea,
  All life long crying without avail,
    As the water all night long is crying to me.

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,–peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards–ten cents a package–and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, –refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head, –some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above. After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius. These powers of body and mind have in the past been strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten. The shadow of a mighty Negro past flits through the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and of Egypt the Sphinx. Through history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness. Here in America, in the few days since Emancipation, the black man’s turning hither and thither in hesitant and doubtful striving has often made his very strength to lose effectiveness, to seem like absence of power, like weakness. And yet it is not weakness,–it is the contradiction of double aims. The double-aimed struggle of the black artisan–on the one hand to escape white contempt for a nation of mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, and on the other hand to plough and nail and dig for a poverty-stricken horde– could only result in making him a poor craftsman, for he had but half a heart in either cause. By the poverty and ignorance of his people, the Negro minister or doctor was tempted toward quackery and demagogy; and by the criticism of the other world, toward ideals that made him ashamed of his lowly tasks. The would-be black savant was confronted by the paradox that the knowledge his people needed was a twice-told tale to his white neighbors, while the knowledge which would teach the white world was Greek to his own flesh and blood. The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people. This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand people,–has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves.”

Weekly Mini Assignment and Guided Reading Questions for Thursday

Discussion Questions for “Amusing the Millions” 

  • What role does audience participation play at Coney Island?
  • Previously we’ve discussed games and sports that emphasized “self-control.” What did the games at amusement parks and world fairs encourage?
  • How is the human body being used in popular culture in new ways at Coney Island? What revolutionary change took place?
  • What inspired George C. Tilyou and what major innovation did he make to American popular culture and entertainment?
  • What technological innovations had to happen to allow theme and amusement parks?
  • Were these places of urban ills or safe and clean places for family amusement?

Mini Weekly Assignment 

The Library of Congress holds hundreds of photographs W.E.B. Du Bois commissioned for the 1900 World’s Fair of African Americans taken less than five years after the birth of American segregation, while Ida B. Wells was fighting lynching, and just as Jack Johnson was ascending as an internationally famous sports champion. All three Americans were trying to transform race relations by using mass entertainment and culture that were displayed, showed, or exhibited at World’s Fairs or amusement parks. The images can be found online here. Select one image that speaks to you. Analyze the photograph. In two paragraphs, put the image you selected into direct conversation with the themes in “Unforgivable Blackness” and Jack Johnson’s experience or Ida B. Well’s writing. If you’ve never analyzed a photograph before, things to possibly consider include framing, focus (foreground/ background), setting, perspective, symmetry, positive and negative space, lines, lighting, posing, motion, tone, subject, theme, angle, or composition. Be sure to include your photo in your assignment and be prepared to share with the class.

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

8 responses to “Week 9: Segregated Amusements: Coney Island, World’s Fairs, and the Heavyweight Championship

  1. At the start of the 20th century, racial segregation became increasingly visible between whites and African Americans. Unforgivable Darkness describes a time in which “Blacks were no longer enslaved, but not yet truly free.” While leaders in the black community held various beliefs about how to minimize the color line, W.E.B. Du Bois endorsed the idea of the Talented Tenth, in which the most skilled blacks who achieved education had a social responsibility to uplift their community. Du Bois himself personified this image, as a Harvard graduate. He wrote about his own “double consciousness” of being both black and an American, and to console the two identities, he aimed to achieve success through “beat[ing] my mates at examination time, or beat[ing] them as a foot-race…I would wrest from them [the prizes]. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way.” Du Bois planned to prove his worth, and the worth of his people, by achieving equal, if not greater, success to that of a white man.

    Likewise, Jack Johnson can be seen as a parallel figure: a black man of extreme talent. In boxing, Johnson was able to achieve success through his skill and athleticism alone, regardless of his skin color. Because the facts dictate the victor in the ring, he built his respected name based on punches thrown. While his success as a black boxer became recognized, hiis flashy demeanor, celebrity status, and behavior with white women was seen as a “perilous threat” to established practices of unequal separation between the races. The implications of his winning included more than a belt and title, but also acted as a political statement regarding the status of colored people and their physical and mental abilities.

  2. All of the readings for this week discussed how African Americans could still not be themselves in a society run by white people. Sure, they were “free” but they were not really allowed to do anything without being persecuted, and in this way they were still slaves to white society. There was still large racial tensions with a visible color line emerging within the time of impending segregation. Seen especially in the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, fear among black people spread, and this allowed for the hiding of one’s culture. Blacks hid their culture in order to stay hidden from the public eye and scrutiny. However, Jack Johnson flipped the status quo by fighting the racial prejudice (literally and figuratively) head-on by being himself unapologetically. Johnson was not afraid to make others angry by doing whatever he so pleased, like openly bringing white women with him around, or speeding down the road in front of the police, or saying whatever was on his mind. Although this stirred up enough controversy that it went to Congress and led to his downfall, Johnson spearheaded an early notion to civil rights.

  3. The story of Jack Johnson is one of great importance in the worlds of sport and race in the United States. Though Johnson was considered one of, if not the, premier fighters of his time. Unfortunately, the peak of his career co-existed with the Jim Crow Era. It was an unprecedented time in American race relations as even in the early 20th century, African-Americans were “free” in the most basic sense of the word, but it would still be half a century before they were ensured the rights all Americans were promised. Johnson’s story is notable in that he was one of the biggest stars in the sport of boxing, and through fighting, was able to publicly challenge the institutional racism on his people. Johnson had a unique brashness to him that was off-putting to many, even some in the black community that did not see prizefighting as a respectable way to represent his race. However, Johnson had his own methods of fighting the status quo, namely his highly public, taboo-breaking relationships with white women. The famous pugilist was extremely open with this facet of his personal life, and while it may not have earned him additional support from either blacks or progressive whites, it contributed heavily to his status, as Ken Burns mentioned, that “for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.” (Burns, Unforgivable Blackness). Johnson’s controversial nature is a stark contrast to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask”, which suggests African-Americans at the time could rarely express their true thoughts, feelings, and emotions, for fear of any further mistreatment than they were already experiencing. Johnson’s career, personality, and personal life contradicted those fears, and perhaps did more for the still-fledgling Civil Rights Movement than some of his more pacifist predecessors and contemporaries. The story of Jack Johnson is not only of one of history’s greatest boxers, it is a story of a man who put himself in both physical danger and political danger to challenge the status quo at a time where his outspokenness and courage were rarely seen.

  4. Ida B. Well’s ‘Southern Horrors’ tells of the horror experienced by negroes during turn of the 19th century, when they faced the threat of lynching for crimes so miniscule as being sassy. But the largest number of lynchings were occurring when black men turned their attention to white women. Wells gives us many morbid examples of these incidents, painting the picture of a time when vigilante mayhem ruled. It’s a terrifying thought that at any time, a mob of people who hated you solely for the color of your skin could come crashing down your front door to take your life.

    In times as these that were so frightening and threatening for members of the African-American race, the achievements of the boxer Jack Johnson stand out as truly remarkable. The talented boxer had no qualms about forming a following of women who were seen with him constantly. Though he started with black women, he soon shifted to white women. Being seen with white women alone would have been enough to have gotten him lynched, but amazingly Johnson went so far as to marry a few of them. Though he finally was arrested for his boldness after the creation of the Mann act, his actions ring out as truly rebellious and courageous. In a time where many who attended his fights would have happily hung him for a tree for his blatant disregard of cultural taboos, Johnson stood fast and practically dared for them to come get him.

  5. The world stood aghast in 1915 when Birth of a Nation heroine Lilly White plummeted to her death rather than face the sexual threat of a black man. Set to a backdrop of the rising economic and social independence of African Americans, Birth of a Nation demonstrated how the sanctity of white womanhood was used against black men to circumscribe civil liberties, heighten racial fears, and catalyze a new era of lynch law and violence against African American men. In a film lauded by the president as an accurate and exceptional retelling of American history, Birth of a Nation’s sensationalized narratives of racial threat to white morality and order catalyzed a revival of the KKK in American and ushered in a new era of violence against black men motivated by fears of interracial relations. Critical to this rise was the iconic scene of Lilly White’s death after being chased down by the African American civil war veteran Gus. The silent film narrative strongly suggests that Gus intends to rape Lilly White, committing countless transgressions in violation of the unwritten expectations surrounding interracial relationships, white women’s purity, and the subordinate nature of black men in the United States. While a fiction, the film did its part to cement the importance of white women’s purity to the coming Jim Crow years, and pit black masculinity against the sanctity of white womanhood.

    Ida B. Wells’ essays on the horrors and motivations behind “Judge Lynch” present key insights into concepts of white femininity in the Jim Crow Era. As Wells writes, many of the hundreds of lynch cases are caused by rumors, fears, and lies surrounding the nature of black men’s relationships with white women. Regardless of the real nature between any white women and lynch victim in question, Wells points out that allegations of rape, miscegenation, or even disrespect between black men and white women could lead to the victim’s brutal and public murder. Wells points out the ironies in the rise of rape allegations against black men after the civil war, and suggests that interracial relations allegations are less about the conviction that miscegenation is occurring and more of a tool to instill fear and control over black men post-reconstruction. In a correspondence to Frederik Douglass, Douglass responds that the myth of sexual threat to white women is also a cover over the possibility that white women might possibly enjoy the company of African American men. To present anything other than the myth of black male sexual aggression is to legitimize the potential of interracial relationships, and “damaging to the moral reputation of [white] women.” To uphold the moral standing of white women, black masculinity had to be constructed in threat and opposition white femininity and persecuted in such a visceral, violent, and public manner that any question of interracial relations was thoroughly destroyed.

  6. The late 19th and early 20th century was a fearful time for African Americans. White society was not prepared or ready to accept and integrate this newly-freed race in the post-emancipation landscape. Afraid and resistant to change, the white populace made African Americans view their societal role through the Caucasian lens. W.E.B DuBois discusses this aspect in his first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, in which he states “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” DuBois depicts how African American reality was warped, and that they had to see both from within themselves and outside of themselves in order to survive. They were expected to understand the predominating “natural order” of the time and fit in accordingly, with white society pushing for the least amount of change possible from the pre-emancipation status quo.

    Heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson directly contrasts DuBois’ portrayal of the African American in this society. Johnson firmly disregarded the concept of DuBois’ veil, highlighted through his actions which demonstrate that he did not care about his race. Johnson’s no-nonsense attitude gave him the audacity (for the time period) to travel with and date white women, engage in white activities, and incorporate himself into white culture. He became a hulking figure that threatened to further disrupt the American status quo by directly challenging white supremacy in the greatest test of masculinity: boxing. For the supremely educated scholar that DuBois was, he needed to understand the societal mold of the time; for the great fighter that Johnson was, he needed to cast aside this veil to fuel the fire that made him champion of the world.

  7. Ida B Wells’ treatise on lynching and D.W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation” both provide examples of how white men utilized the sexuality of black men and white women in order to oppress both groups. In “Birth of a Nation,” Lily White is portrayed as the epitome of proper white sexuality. She’s “pure,” innocent, and passive, responding positively to displays of white male sexual prowess and white men’s attempts to exert power and control over her, while responding negatively to any expressions of black male sexuality, which is portrayed as inherently threatening. The effect of this portrayal was to demonize and shame black men for their own bodies and sexual desires, while simultaneously denying white women any sense of agency or power. Ida B Wells paints a horrifying picture of the violence that ensued when these expectations were defied. She describes how instances of consensual relations between white women and black men were censured by covering them up, denying their existence, or repainting the story to reflect more “acceptable” scripts of black men’s “animalistic” sexuality “ravaging” helpless white women. When women refused to fit into this script, they were shamed and ostracized. The consequences were almost always the harshest for black men, who were constantly faced with the threat of being lynched. Though lynchings were nearly always described as retribution for sexual violence, in reality the victim’s transgression often had nothing to do with sex, and had more to do with the victim “stepping out of their place” or exerting power or confidence in some way. By conflating any assertive actions on the part of a black man as sexual, perpetrators of lynching further demonized black sexuality, as nearly any action by a black man could be interpreted to be a sexual advance. For this reason alone, lynchings themselves can be seen as an act of sexual violence, as they were framed as a punishment for sexual expression. Furthermore, the lynchings often involved stripping and displaying the victim, or sometimes direct forms of genital mutilation, inflicting another layer of sexual violence onto the victims. Though Ida B Wells and D.W. Griffith approach the topic of sexuality and lynchings from entirely different directions, they both shed light onto how those attempting to maintain social hierarchies utilized sexuality as a weapon to achieve their goals.

  8. Both The Souls of Black Folk and Unforgivable Blackness contain overlapping ideas. Jack Johnson, a renounced African American fighter, fought as many black opponents as he could to prove he was worthy of a fight against the champion white man. After many fights he was given the opportunity at the title. The result was a victory, but many excuses were made up as to why the white man lost. This made Johnson’s win seem irrelevant and unaccredited. This is a common theme of African Americans pasts. They did not receive recognition for their achievements and this should not be forgotten. This is shown in The Souls of Black Folk because in the passage African Americans ideals are brought into conversation. It is said “he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost” (Souls) meaning that the past should not be forgotten, such as the suffering and hardships African Americans went through, but rather recognized. Johnson went through many hardships in order to achieve his goals and those goals should have been recognized differently.

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